8 Leadership Lessons

Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Learn 8 timeless leadership lessons and concise tips for executing on each of them.

  1. Listen to Your Team
  2. Get Everyone Onboard with Decisions
  3. Tell Employees How to Succeed
  4. Praise Your Employees
  5. Give Constructive Feedback
  6. Focus on Your Best People
  7. Be Willing to Part with Underperformers
  8. Get in the Trenches

1. Listen to Your Team

Ask your team what’s not working, what’s working, and what you can do to make their work easier.

One of the fastest ways to improve your leadership is to listen to feedback from your team.

To get honest employee feedback, try asking these questions.

  1. Tell me what’s not working.
  2. What needs to be fixed?
  3. Where are you stuck?
  4. Is anything causing delays?
  5. Tell me what’s working.
  6. Did you have any wins this week?
  7. What were the best contributions by your team members?
  8. How are you feeling?
  9. What can the company do to help you _____?
  10. What would you do differently if you were running this?
  11. What’s holding you back from _____?
  12. What is your favorite part of your job?

Once you identify areas for improvement, resist the urge to step in with solutions right away. Instead, ask your team for suggestions. Discuss their ideas and try following through on their advice (at least sometimes).

After you’ve heard your team’s ideas you can suggest your own solutions and get their feedback. By talking less and listening more, your team will pay more attention when you have something to say.

2. Get Everyone Onboard with Decisions

In the interest of speed, many leaders make decisions by authority. While it’s faster to make decisions by yourself, you’ll spend more time getting your team onboard, and you might waste even more time if your decisions are short-sighted.

Usually it’s best to make decisions with your team, either by consensus or majority opinion.

Building consensus among your team usually saves time in the long run.

Jill Mendoza, founder of IDO Incorporated, practices open-book management. She shares financial reports with all employees and takes time to teach employees how to read them. This helps everyone participate in leadership decisions, or at least understand why the company is doing what it’s doing.

One of the risks inherent in involving your team in decision-making is that some employees will not agree with the majority opinion or with the decision that you ultimately make. When people disagree with management, they can sometimes lose enthusiasm and underperform while executing. To avoid this trap, once a decision is made, let your whole team know the reasons behind the decision, then ask everyone to commit to making the decision work.

3. Tell Employees How to Succeed

Want to get the best work from your employees?

Tell them how you measure their performance! Be very clear about your expectations.

Take your employee’s behind-the scenes. Show them how their performance impacts your bottom line. Then show them the key performance indicators (KPI’s) you’ll use to measure their success.

To open communication with your employees:

  1. Sit down with each employee individually.
  2. List their responsibilities as well as 3-6 goals for the year. Write down each goal in 250 words or less.
  3. Show them how meeting these goals directly impacts your company’s profitability.
  4. For each goal, establish targets that you can regularly review. If the targets are straightforward enough, these check-ins should take less than 60 seconds.
  5. Show your employees the KPI’s you’ll use to measure each target.

Good employees want to succeed in their jobs and make a difference for your company.

Take the time to show them how.

4. Praise Your Employees

Compliment your employees on the spot when you notice good performance. Every time you praise an employee, you give them a small win, which motivates them to continue.

Brent Beshore makes it a habit to compliment employees every day.

CEO Brent Beshore walks around the Adventur.es office daily to praise his staff for their work. He says, “It could be something as small as, ‘I really appreciated the email announcement you crafted,’ or something more substantive like, ‘Thanks for handling that tough situation a few days ago.’”

To effectively praise an employee:

  1. Use their name
  2. Specify what they did right,
  3. Tell them why their work mattered

For example, you could say: “Hey, Alicia. Thanks for providing such clear infographics on the slide show. It looked like everyone understood our key points. I’m glad we can count on you to make our data come alive with your graphics!”

If you’re a CEO, don’t just rely on your midlevel managers. Get out in the office like Brent, find out what people on your team are doing, and compliment them when you see them doing things right. For an intern or new employee, even small recognition from a CEO can be a career highpoint that motivates them to work harder for the company.

Action Step: Review the work your employees did today. Take a moment to walk over to an employee’s desk and let them know what they did well. Make sure to tell them why this matters. (If the employee or freelancer is remote, send a thank-you email.)

5. Give Constructive Feedback

When team members fall short of your expectations, let them know right away. Then be sure to tell them how they can improve.

Even small adjustments to your team’s daily behavior can have a massive impact on your bottom line, so don’t wait for a quarterly review to give feedback.

You can speed up your team’s rate of improvement by sharing feedback on a daily or weekly basis.

Give your employees on-the-spot feedback to correct mistakes and optimize their performance.

To give constructive criticism, follow these 3 steps.

  1. Assess fault. When an employee doesn’t achieve the standard you’re looking for, quickly determine whether it’s from lack of training or the employee’s lack of care. If you’re not sure whether an employee was trained on something, it’s ok to just ask them.
  2. Improve training. If the employee wasn’t sufficiently trained, take 1 minute to let them know what they should do differently next time. Ask if they have any questions and answer all their questions in detail. Then see if you can improve your company’s training procedures for future employees.
  3. Reprimand. If the employee made a mistake and should have known better, take 1 minute to privately tell them what they did wrong. Remind them that you know they can do better based on their past performance or the promise they showed in their interview. Then quickly move on by complimenting them on something they’re doing well.

Be very careful to avoid a common mistake: storing up criticism.

If you tell an employee 5 mistakes they’ve made recently, there will be too much to digest, and the employee will likely feel discouraged. It’s much better to share an opportunity for improvement as soon as you notice it.

Avoid making assumptions or diminishing your employee:

“You were really awkward. It doesn’t seem like you’ve done this before.”

Instead, keep your feedback specific, objective, situation-focused, and actionable.

To make your feedback more comfortable, try the feedback sandwich. Give praise, offer a correction or suggestion, then give praise again. 

  1. Praise: “You did a good job asking the customer what they need…”
  2. Correction: “…but then you accidentally cut them off. Make sure to listen until the customer is completely finished talking. Then you can step in with your recommendations. Otherwise the customer could feel you’re not listening to them….”
  3. Praise: “…I like the recommendation you gave them afterwards—that was very helpful!”

6. Focus on Your Best People

Many employees believe that they need to switch companies every few years for new career opportunities and a higher salary.

Don’t let your company lose talent like this!

Give your top performers new opportunities to thrive at your company.

There will be a tendency to lose track of your top performers. They’re so good at what they do, it seems like you don’t need to worry about them.

If you want your company to thrive, focus on the individuals who are quietly driving your success. Lavish your top performers with praise, leadership opportunities, financial rewards, and ample coaching time.

7. Be Willing to Part with Underperformers

At times it will become clear that your company can be stronger with new talent in certain roles.

Terminating underperforming employees enables you to focus on your middle-performers and high-performers.

Before firing an employee, make sure you given them an opportunity to improve.

  1. Tell them what they’re doing wrong and let them know what they need to do for you to keep them on your team. Be clear that you’re putting them on probation and establish a timeline to track their performance improvements.
  2. Check in with the employee at scheduled times during the probation. Coach the employee and be as supportive as you can. 

If the employee doesn’t improve, former GE CEO Jack Welch says, “love them as much on the way out as you loved them on the way in.”

There are 5 steps to terminating an employee respectfully:

  1. Arrange for a few weeks of severance pay and make an effort to help the employee find a new job. An HR manager may be able to facilitate this. Remember that the cost of this care is insignificant compared to the upside of hiring a more effective employee.
  2. Schedule a meeting with the employee and one witness. The witness can protect your company from liability in the event that the employee misrepresents why or how they were terminated.
  3. Tell the employee that you’ll be releasing them. Let them know about any severance pay or job placement services your company will provide.
  4. Be clear about your decision. If the employee begins debating, tell them that you’re not debating.
  5. End the meeting by asking the employee to collect their belongings from their desk. If you schedule the meeting for the end of the workday, the terminated employee should have privacy since there will be few employees around the office.
Although this video wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, it’s helpful at showing the challenges and best practices for terminating an employee.

What if I don’t want to fire someone?

No one wakes up in the morning eager to do their job poorly, deliver subpar results, get negative feedback, lose motivation, and disengage from a job they no longer enjoy.

Remember that letting someone go gives them the opportunity to find a job that better suits them.

What if my team are all-stars?

Small businesses are especially susceptible to believing that all of their employees are performing well or that they “can’t” do anything about underperforming employees.

Remember that if you can field a better person for a position, you can potentially increase your team’s performance.

Should I rank employees?

Jack Welch recommends that companies fire 10% of their employees every year. Removing the bottom 10%, he says, helps your company focus time and resources on everyone else.

It is useful to benchmark employees. However, strict rankings have been shown to put employees into “survival mode.” Suddenly team members start blaming coworkers, crediting themselves, avoiding collaboration, distrusting leadership, and losing their confidence and creativity.

To avoid this, most leaders today prefer to assess employees individually.

8. Get in the Trenches

If you want to earn your employees’ commitment and enthusiasm, get “in the trenches” with them.

Step out of your office! Walk around and observe your employees as they work. Better yet, set up a cubicle so you can work right alongside your team.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg works in a bullpen alongside the rest of his team. (Photo by The Hollywood Reporter)

Give your employees praise and constructive feedback on the spot as you observe their behavior. Ask questions, get their input, and involve them in decision-making. Reward your best performing team members, and let go of those who don’t improve.

The more you engage with your employees, the more they’ll engage with your company, and the better off your entire organization will be.

What About You?

Which leadership lesson has made the biggest difference in your career? Tell us what lesson you would pick and why in the comments.

Feel free to link readers back to your site or LinkedIn if you would like our readers to be able to get in touch with you.

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8 Leadership Lessons

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